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Alumna’s Film, Exam, Passes Test at International Film Festivals

Hadad talking on set, surrounded by crew
Sonia Hadad, MFA ’17, third from left, directs on the set of Exam. Courtesy photo

Since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, Exam, a short film directed and co-written by Sonia Hadad, MFA ’17 has scooped up accolades at festivals around the world, gathering 33 awards, including Best Actress in a Short Film at Sundance last year for star Sadaf Asgari, and Best Live Action Short Film at AFI (American Film Institute) Fest. Thanks to the AFI award, Exam qualifies for a 2021 Academy Award – voting takes place during February of this year.

Exam, a 14-minute thriller was filmed on location in Tehran, Iran. It tells the story of a teenage girl (Asgari) who is enlisted to deliver a drug package on a day when she is scheduled to take an important exam at school.

We asked Hadad about the film, it’s success, and learning filmmaking at Emerson.

Where did the idea for Exam come from?

Exam‘s story is a combination of my personal experiences at school and an actual story I had heard from a friend. I always wanted to illustrate the academic atmosphere I had experienced. When I heard about the real story about drug dealing at school, I decided to mix them to write the script and recreate the situation and the actual characters.

For me, going to school was all about restrictions and stress. In the movie, the school’s atmosphere was a reflection or metaphor of a controlled society and cultural crash, in which you could see the social failures’ symbols in the movie! While writing the script, I tried my best to make the story as close as possible to the reality I had experienced.

Girl in hijab with backpack in schoolyard
Sadaf Asgari in a scene from Exam. Courtesy photo

Were you surprised by the reception it has received?

I was already aware that I had made a good movie, but I couldn’t predict its fortunate future successes, so it made me so glad. Additionally, my most significant achievement in making this film, which I am proud of, is getting to know the great new friends, colleagues, and people with whom I will undoubtedly work in the next projects.

What has the response been in Iran?

The responses were very positive and motivating. Exam … was able to screen at Fajr Film Festival and also Tehran International Short Film Festival, one of Iran’s most important and prestigious festivals. It also won the Best Screenplay award. I received a lot of great feedback from filmmakers in the industry.

I read on your IMDB page that you hold diplomas in math/physics and studied theatre as an undergraduate in Tehran. How did you make your way to filmmaking? 

Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by my surroundings: sounds, objects, people, feelings, and the interaction of all these elements. Curiosity has always been an integral part of my life. I started writing stories when I was very young. My writing and stories were …surprising people, especially my parents. Therefore, they always wanted me to write more.

I started writing short stories for a literary magazine, and it was when I began receiving feedback from my friends, strangers, and the magazine’s readers. So, I comprehended that maybe my only talent is writing and creating stories! It made me pay attention to the details of people’s lives and their environment; ever since I have created stories out of simple incidents concerning people’s daily struggles.

My fascination with the intersection of history, culture, and sociology continues to inform my visual and conceptual personal language. Iran’s society shaped me in turmoil, which makes me more engaged with daily challenges. I work to create an atmosphere of everyday realism so that the spectator can connect the artwork to his or her own experiences. However, I believe the image is so compelling that I needed an art platform to combine words and pictures.

Despite my physics and mathematics diploma, I decided to study creative writing/ theatre for my bachelor. I worked in the theatre field for almost [six] years, but in the end, I realized that cinema is the tool to fulfill my artistic goals because it combines visual arts and storytelling to form a more accurate and complete story. So I chose this career path, as I enjoy it a lot.

Hadad in front of colorful mural
Sonia Hadad, MFA ’17. Courtesy photo

How has (or has) what you learned at Emerson impacted your work?

Emerson was a great place for me to [progress] and develop my practical skills in filmmaking. Undoubtedly, studying and working in two different educational/work systems has significantly impacted my creative world. Traveling and working in different environments taught me that there is always something new to learn in every workplace and every other context. Working with people of different nationalities at Emerson and with different thoughts and ideas broadened my mind. I knew that every challenge and hardship develop creativity and imagination. 

What are you working on now/next?

These days, I am working on my next short film to shoot it as soon as the pandemic situation gets better, and I am working on my feature film’s plot, which I have planned to make it in the next year in Iran again.

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